MONTREAL – In the midst of the NHL’s annual trading frenzy, Bob Gainey will take time out from his general manager’s duties to accept a hockey player’s highest honour – having his jersey number retired by his team.
Gainey’s No. 23 will be lifted to the Bell Centre ceiling in a ceremony on Saturday night ahead of the Montreal Canadiens game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
He will be the 14th player – the seventh in the last three years – to have his jersey immortalized by the 24-time Stanley Cup champion Canadiens.
There will be two full days and part of another after that for Gainey to try to land an “impact player,” as he puts it, before the deadline at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.
“I have had the chance in the last few years to see people, some of whom I played with and some I didn’t, who have been honoured in the same way, so I’m thrilled,” Gainey said as he met with reporters in the team’s dressing room. “I’m being selected out of a very broad group of great players.
“I’m enjoying it now and probably will be able to for many years ahead.”
Gainey was a dominant defensive left winger in his 16 seasons as a player from 1973-74 to 1988-89, all with the Canadiens, for whom he served as captain from 1981 until his retirement.
He won five Stanley Cups, as well as the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs in 1979, the last of a run of four straight Cup triumphs.
The Frank Selke Trophy for the NHL’s best defensive forward was created with Gainey’s unique skills in mind and he won the first four from 1978 to 1981.
Many friends and former teammates will be on hand for what promises to be an emotional ceremony, falling 15 months after the death of Gainey’s daughter Laura in an accident at sea in which she was swept off a ship’s deck by a wave. His voice cracks with pain at the mention of her.
“I can’t turn away from all the events that have happened in my life,” he said. “I’ve had a great life.
“I’m 54 and I’ve lived large. I’ve had a lot happen to me and I’ve been a lot of places. And I’ve had some other things happen, too.”
While the other players with retired jerseys were either scoring stars like Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur, outstanding defencemen like Doug Harvey and Larry Robinson, or brilliant goaltenders like Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden, Gainey’s statistics are modest.
He scored 239 goals and had 262 assists in 1,160 regular season games.
His strengths were less quantifiable things like leadership, intensity and intelligence, said his linemate from the 1970s Doug Jarvis, now the Canadiens associate coach.
Jarvis, a Selke winner in 1984 with Washington, called Gainey “a player that could dominate as a forward from a defensive type game. Strong positionally. A tremendous skater. When he was on the ice from a defensive point of view, he was in control of what was happening out there.
“There were other defensive forwards before, but he could move on the ice and get in on the forecheck with his speed and yet be able to track back and play in the defensive area as well. He was just dominant on the ice.”
In the early 1980s Guy Carbonneau, now the Canadiens head coach, found himself at centre on Gainey’s line. Carbonneau would later become a first-rate defensive forward, winning the Selke three times.
“He was probably the best leader I ever played with or worked for,” said Carbonneau. “I was pretty lucky to have guys like him and Larry Robinson to show me the ropes – how to play the game and how to behave around the league. He respected the game and that’s what made him that good.”
Gainey doesn’t take credit for the Selke, saying he didn’t invent defensive hockey. He said Claude Provost, who shadowed the likes of Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich in the 1950s and 1960s, also “represented that style of player.”
“Maybe it was an accumulation of players like Claude Provost, Jim Roberts and Bob Gainey that eventually thrust the idea in front of the people who made the decisions,” he added. “I’m happy to carry the banner that it was all about me, but in fact it wasn’t.”
After his playing days ended, the Peterborough, Ont., native did a brief coaching stint in France and then joined the Minnesota North Stars as coach, later becoming GM in the Minnesota/Dallas organization and winning another Cup there in 1999.
He returned to the Canadiens as GM in 2003. Under his watch, the club has stacked up young talent and this season is battling for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
That makes the trading deadline extra important, as Gainey is expected to be a major buyer if the right scoring star, possibly Marian Hossa of the Atlanta Thrashers or Alex Tanguay of the Calgary Flames, becomes available.
He expects it to go down to the wire on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re waiting for one or two or three of those teams to say yes, that’s what they want to do,” he said of trades. “Then we’ll find out if we can dance or not.
“At this point, I don’t have that solid indication.”
Otherwise, he said the team he has now is quite capable of going far in the playoffs.